With plastic production set to double by 2035, accurate and reliable identification methods have never been more important in terms of sorting and recycling. Ken Sickles, EVP and chief product officer at Digimarc, breaks this issue down for us in our latest comment piece.


There is no doubt that plastic plays a hugely valuable role in making sure products reach consumers in the way they were meant to. Plastics’ unique properties provide a cost-effective way of making sure products are kept safe and intact until their point of use.

As a result, plastic production has risen exponentially – from 2 to 380 million tonnes since 1950, and set to double by 2035 and almost quadruple by 2050.

Unfortunately, recycling and reuse of plastic has not kept pace – in fact, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 14-18% of global plastic waste is recycled. Even more shocking, it is estimated that only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled - leaving society with a serious environmental challenge. Approximately 40% of today’s global plastic waste ends up in the environment.

The current linear system means that as well as the devastating environmental impact of unchecked plastic production, there is also a substantial economic impact – with 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth USD 80-120 billion annually, being lost.

The need for a circular economy

Higher environmental consciousness by regulators, investors, and consumers is driving demand for improved recycling solutions. The world wants to ensure valuable resources remain in circularity and out of landfills, but identifying which materials are recyclable is challenging for businesses and consumers alike.

As governments and industry groups move toward circular economies for recycling and reusing plastics in consumer packaging, there is a critical need for a means of accurate and reliable automatic identification to classify and sort various packaging materials during the recycling process that works at scale, even in the harshest of conditions. Innovative solutions, like digital watermarks, help improve recycling sortation issues while also increasing traceability.

Accurate and reliable ID methods are a must

According to the WWF, a key component in tackling the plastics problem is “implementing sufficient monitoring and compliance measures for all policies related to the production, collection and management of waste by all stakeholders in the plastic system.”

Of course, monitoring requires data – and critical to any move to a circular economy will be the use of accurate and reliable ID methods for plastic packaging.

In practice, this means that all plastic packaging needs to be designed so that it can be effectively recycled or reused – with none ending up in landfill or the environment.

There has been much talk recently of the need for, and benefits of, end-to-end visibility across the whole of the supply chain, and this extends to packaging end of life. The ability to automatically print unique digital identities onto individual goods will mean that waste can be easily tracked, classified, and sorted, ready for reuse or recycling.

The Digital Watermarks Initiative HolyGrail 2.0 has already proven the effectiveness of digital watermarks in recycling. With an average detection rate of 99%, results from the recently completed semi-industrial trial clearly demonstrated that digital watermarks perform exceptionally well across all tested categories of plastic packaging material in conditions representing routine industrial operations. Even in harsher conditions – with higher belt speed and severe soiling and crushing – digital watermarks maintained performance.

Keeping the consumer informed

As well as facilitating more accurate reuse and recycling, unique digital identities for products also have vast potential when it comes to consumer engagement.

The growing wave of conscious consumerism means that many customers want to ensure the products they are purchasing align with their own values – and that brands are adhering to promises of sustainability and ethical behaviour. This, coupled with health concerns about the impact of mismanaged waste, means consumers are starting to demand evidence that the products they are buying are not only produced, but also disposed of, in a sustainable manner.

The use of unique digital identities that can be scanned in-store will enable a potential customer to access information about how a product has been produced, transported, and how it will be disposed of.

Being able to demonstrate this sort of accountability has a direct impact on the bottom line. According to IBM, sustainability is important to 80% of shoppers, and for those who say it is very/extremely important, over 70% would pay a premium of 35% for brands that are sustainable and environmentally responsible. These figures show that being able to demonstrate these attributes is now a ‘must-have’ for business survival

The way ahead

Finding a new, more sustainable, way forward when it comes to plastic packaging is essential. Regardless of how a product is produced, a brand cannot fulfil promises of sustainability without ensuring that its packaging adheres to the same principles.

The systemic change that is needed will require robust application and investment across the board – adopting new technologies, overhauling management practices, and stringent application of policies.

Done properly these changes will have far-reaching social, environmental, and economic benefits. According to the PEW Trust, they could result in about an 80% reduction of the flow of plastic into the ocean over the next 20 years.

Ignoring the plastic waste problem isn’t an option – the only question is: Which businesses will be making a name for themselves as part of the solution, and which will remain part of the problem?